Starting From Scratch: The Early Days of Milton Hershey

“A model town, a modern factory, a substantial business, these are the realizations of one businessman’s dreams.” - The Business World, June 1903

It is a name that makes mouths around the world salivate just at the sound of it. In a classic story of rags to riches, Milton Hershey became not only one of 20th century America’s most successful entrepreneurs but also one of the country’s most generous philanthropists. Today, more than sixty years after his death, The Hershey Company continues to reign as the world’s largest chocolate company with more than 13,700 employees and over $4 billion in sales.

Milton Snavely Hershey was born on September 13, 1857 onto 350 acres of Pennsylvania farmland first purchased by his great-grandparents. A descendant of those who had come over from Switzerland and Germany in the 1700s, Hershey grew up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. The family was constantly on the move due to his father’s many failed business attempts, including a fruit farm and a nursery. This strain eventually took its toll on Hershey’s parents and they drifted apart.

Hershey and his mother later settled in Lancaster County. While his mother was a strict member of the Reformed Mennonite Church, Hershey himself never took part in any formal religion, claiming he followed only “The Golden Rule.” Hershey also never received much formal education; in eight years of schooling, he attended seven different institutions.

In 1871, Hershey dropped out of school completely and went to work as an apprentice to the editor of a small, German-language newspaper in his hometown. He did not enjoy the work and, after dropping his hat into the printing press, Hershey was fired. His second job, at the age of 14, would prove more valuable than his first. His mother found him an apprenticeship with a candy and ice cream maker in Lancaster, where he would spend the next four years learning the science of candy making.

At the age of 19, Hershey decided to move to Philadelphia in order to start up his own candy business. Borrowing money from his uncle, Hershey printed business cards and stationary to advertise his new business. His mother and aunt also moved to Philadelphia to help him, but the business was never able to generate a profit and was forced to close six years later.

Hershey refused to give up. He traveled throughout Denver, New York, Chicago and New Orleans trying to find fortune but, again, he was unsuccessful. He returned to Pennsylvania armed with just one piece of knowledge that he had learned on his travels: fresh milk makes good candy. This would turn out to be his one secret weapon in the future as he continued to strive to realize his dreams of creating a successful candy company. But for the moment, he was 28 years old and was returning home unemployed, broke and shunned by his family for being an irresponsible and unsuccessful drifter.

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